When the night train to Montreal set out from Utica on April 29, 1931, James E. Smith had already been toiling over the needs and wants of his passengers for many hours. At 29 years old, Smith had been a Pullman porter for about three years. He had done a stint in Pennsylvania and now was employed on the New York Central line of the Pullman Company.
The experience of the Pullman porter was both uncommon yet ordinary. The Pullman Palace Car company hired black men almost exclusively as porters. This practice began under the direction of the founder of the company, George Pullman, after the Civil War. On board a luxurious and comfortable Pullman Car, Pullman porters were expected to be the ideal servants to their well off white passengers.
As author Larry Tye states, “Pullman hired more Negroes than any businessman in America, giving them a monopoly on the profession of Pullman porter and a chance to enter the cherished middle class. He did it not out of sentimentality, of which he had none, but because it made business sense.” George Pullman was no civil rights champion, but his capitalist pursuits contributed to an enigma in the Pullman porter that would come to represent a transitory experience unlike any in the history of the world: an entire generation of chattel slaves and their children were suddenly engaged in the pursuit of their own economic liberty and advancement.
Even though Pullman porters were taking the opportunity to become members of the middle class, they still had to put up with the reality of the job; they were servants. On board the train they had to contend with back-breaking work and degrading treatment. Any questions and they would be fired.
So it was; and by April 29, 1931 when James Smith’s train departed Utica north into the Adirondacks, the white passengers and crew were very accustomed to the social order. Really all of America was, which is probably why the incident that occurred that night had such a shocking impact. Smith became involved in a brutal fight with a white conductor of the Pullman Car, Edward English, and other white crew members.
A Fateful Fight
English claimed Smith hassled a white female passenger in her sleeping quarters, or berth. When English approached Smith, English claimed it sparked a rage, and a violent attack by Smith followed. Smith himself claimed that he was attacked by English, and had no inappropriate interactions with the white woman. The result of the incident was that state troopers arrested Smith at the train station in Thendara, about 50 miles north of Utica. Smith was released on $5,000 bail, paid for by Samuel J. Wolfe of Utica. 
The incident led to a print media frenzy. Here is a description of the incident from Time magazine:
To most people a Pullman porter is a Negro called George who will do anything he can to make a railroad journey pleasant, comfortable, safe. He is the factocum of a confined and temporary world and his trustworthiness is part of the national credo. The necessity for this trustworthiness was evident last week when a Pullman porter went berserk on a Montreal bound New York Central Train.
With this sacred “trustworthiness” allegedly breached in such dramatic fashion, the newspapers were sure to make the most of it. The headlines across New York State could not have been more of an indictment of Porter Smith. The Auburn Citizen read, “Negro Porter Runs Amuck on Train”; The Utica Observer Dispatch’s headline was, “Porter Runs Wild, Injures Eight on Northern Train”; The Albany Evening News reported, “Porter Runs Amuck in Car, Injures Four”; and The Amsterdam Evening Recorder sated “Porter Stages Rampage on Train North of Utica.”
The Pullman company seemingly conceded to the public indictment of Porter Smith and decided to terminate his employment. On the side of Smith was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by A. Philip Randolph. Randolph had been leading the charge against the Pullman company and their “yellow dog” union, known as the Employee Representation Plan – a company union meant to undermine attempts by porters to organize a union of their own. So far, the Pullman company had been successful in preventing a union of porters from forming.
The case against now ex-Pullman porter James E. Smith was finally brought to trial in September, 1932 in Rome, NY. The trial was presided over by Judge F.H. Hazard, was prosecuted by Oneida County DA Thomas Brown Rudd, Assistant DA Thomas McGinty questioned witnesses; and defendant James E. Smith was counseled by Congressman Fiorello La Guardia and William Goldbas and J.I. Marks from Utica.
Pullman conductor Edward English took the stand and gave his side of the story. English stated that he had spoken with Smith numerous times before the incident relating to ordinary duties, he claimed that the last time he had spoken to Smith before the incident he told Smith to prepare for a passenger to unboard the train. A short time after that English claimed he had to search through the sleeping car to find Smith and upon walking through he heard a woman say, “Stop or I will scream.” English said he then flung open the curtains and found Smith in the berth with a white woman. At this point English said he grabbed Smith “by the collar” and yanked him out of the woman’s sleeping quarters, Smith then got up and broke for the front of the car. Then, “English said the woman called to him and as he stooped to her berth Smith returned and hit him over the head and shoulders with a window stick.”
English said he then “drew away” and other members of the crew got involved. Smith swung the stick at “Trainman Morgan” he said, but missed and instead landed another blow on English. English then claimed he retreated to the “drawing room and locked the door behind him to protect himself against Smith who was in an apparent rage shouting, ‘I’ll kill you and everybody in this car.’” Then English said crew member William McCann “locked English in the toilet adjoining the state room and he said Smith broke a window from the aisle to this room and swung his stick striking McCann a dozen times.” A short time later English said he made a break for the “signal whistle” and was again pursued by Smith to a private car at the rear of the train where another “tussle” ensued. After that, Smith was arrested by State Troopers in Thendara.
Another witness, Lester Cautin, a passenger from Lake Placid, claimed that earlier in the night he got up for a smoke when he saw Smith “in the aisle near the blonde woman’s section”. And it was at this time that Cautin claimed he heard Smith say he was going to kill the conductor. Once the chaotic scene was under way Cautin claimed Smith threatened him when the porter thought Cautin was going to swing a sledgehammer at him. Cautin said he later saw Smith carrying an axe, and repeated his threat to the conductor.
According to James Morgan’s testimony, Morgan was in the state room car toward the back while the incident was unfolding. Morgan said he learned what was happening when English came into the state room. Morgan said he tried to escape the rear of the train by jumping off at Otter Lake. Just as he was about to do so, Morgan claimed Smith, “Struck him twice over the head and shoulders.”
Another witness, head Pullman conductor W.J. Jordon, claimed Smith approached him and said, “ I’ve been framed and I want to talk.” From there, he said, the porter calmed.
On Tuesday September 27, 1932; before a packed court house; ex Pullman Porter James E. Smith took the stand in Rome, NY to defend himself.
Smith said that later in the night, he was shining shoes in the smoking car when Conductor English appeared to Smith and asked him, “What were you doing in tower 6?”
Smith’s reply was, “I was doing nothing. I went there to get the young lady’s bags and took them to the dressing room at her request and later returned them to the berth at her request.”
That was the moment, Smith said, English hit him on the side of the head with his ticket punch, Smith fled the smoking room and was pursued by English. This is when Smith grabbed a ventilator stick out of a closet to ward off English who was rushing him. After striking English with the stick, Smith says, William McCann came for him and Smith also struck McCann with the stick. At this time English, McCann, and Morgan fought with Smith; and it was this tussle that caused the broken glass in the drawing room. Smith said he fled the drawing room seeking the head conductor, after a meeting with him, he once again returned to the scene of the fight. This was when Smith noticed that a passenger was holding a sledgehammer he got from a nearby emergency box. Smith said this was when he picked up the axe from the box and, “threatened the passenger who had the hammer.” He then told all the passengers that, “he wouldn’t bother them if they would leave him alone.” Smith said he then set the axe down.
As dramatic as Smith’s testimony most assuredly was, the real star witness in this case was one who never showed up. Carra MacGregor, the mysterious “white woman” testified to the grand jury, but was not present at Smith’s trial. Apparently somewhere in California, she was never brought forth to testify. If anyone might have been able to provide clarity over what sparked this incident it could have been MacGregor. Fiorello LaGuardia and the defense team made the most of her absence. William Goldbas “moved for dismissal of the complaint” as a result, but Judge Hazard struck down his motion.
Judge Hazard was involved in a couple of stirring moments of the trial. The spectators in the courtroom were warned by Hazard for laughing at “humorous” remarks that were made. He ordered the courtroom to be cleared when attendees did not heed his warning, but people were apparently permitted to re-enter in the afternoon. He ejected another unruly spectator that afternoon.
Hazard also made a decision that sparked an impassioned objection from LaGuardia. Hazard permitted the prosecution to submit a signed statement by Smith to the former District Attorney Charles De Angelis. LaGuardia argued that Smith had claimed he was never told that anything he might say could be used against him in court, so allowing this statement could have been a violation of his “constitutional rights”. Hazard reassured the defense counsel by stating, “Decisions of this court have been affirmed by higher courts on many occasions, so we shall continue with your permission, Mr. LaGuardia.”
On Wednesday, September 28 the jury went into deliberation at 4:50 in the afternoon. With an hour break for a meal, the jury presented their verdict at about 8:30. Smith was not guilty.
Who may be credited with Smith’s ‘not guilty’ verdict? A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters stood up for their fellow porter when he was fired by the Pullman Company. Randolph acquired the help of LaGuardia and maintained communication with him through the ordeal. LaGuardia’s political stature and performance in court might have brought much needed credibility to Smith’s side. Thomas Brown Rudd, Oneida County DA, permitted the trial to be put off – and failed to produce a key witness, “the white woman” Carra MacGregor. Smith himself, gave a straightforward and reasonable account of what happened that night.
LaGuardia was touted for putting up a “brilliant defense” of Smith. He used MacGregor’s absence to punch a major hole in the prosecution’s case, and he was able to lean on Smith’s testimony to argue that he was acting in self defense. The California Eagle stated that since there were no witnesses in favor of Smith in this case that the verdict was “strong evidence of the vigorous and able fight put up for him by Congressman LaGuardia.”
A. Philip Randolph said that the outcome of the case was not only a victory for Smith and the Pullman porters, but also for, “the Negro race as a whole who suffer many grave injustices based upon fictitious charges and allegations of their attempting to force their attentions that tend to facilitate race conflict.”
The verdict was a vindication for James E. Smith. He did not have to go to prison, he would instead go home to his family. It would also be used as an example of how the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters could successfully come to the aid of one of its members, when the company union did not.
It also contributed to the credibility of Fiorello LaGuardia as a torch bearer of justice for all. LaGuardia would evoke the Smith case years later as Mayor of New York, when he spoke to a large gathering of Pullman porters, recalling how he defended a porter who “had to swing a fire axe in order to save himself”.
Photos (from above): A Pullman Porter helping carrying a woman’s luggage onto a rail car (circa 1880s, unknown source); Jack Delano, “Pullman Porter Making Up an Upper Berth Aboard the ‘Capital Limited,’ Bound for Chicago, Illinois,” March 1942 (Library of Congress); part of the front page headline of the April 29, 1931 Auburn Citizen; Fiorello La Guardia (Library of Congress); James E. Smith in a newspaper photo; and a headline from the The New York Age, October 8, 1932.